Once again, I’m writing a politically charged article that I had not planned to write. But what I have to say needs attention as history is repeating itself, albeit in a different arena.
One of the many reasons we moved to Israel (and there are many) was the fact that it provided us a much more affordable launching pad to travel to Europe. We always dreamed of traveling, and have been able to take advantage of low-cost airfare and shortened travel times.
John and I just returned from two glorious weeks in the Czech Republic. For our last day’s excursion, we arose very early to make the hour train ride from Prague to Terezinstadt, one of the 633 European Nazi concentration camps. We knew it would be a most difficult day.
In 1780, the Hapsburg emperor, Josef II had a fortified town built as a deterrent to Prussian attacks. Surrounded by high walls and moat, the lovely island of a village was continually inhabited until 1941, when a truly diabolical plan was hatched.
There needed to be a spin put on the Nazi’s true program of liquidating the Jewish population of Europe. A different face to show the world. A kinder, gentler, human face. A mask for what was truly happening. A concentration camp “showplace” so to speak, to prove to the International Red Cross and other humanitarian agencies that anything they might have heard about the unethical, inhumane treatment of “undesirables” was just rumor. Terezinstadt became the perfect place for their propaganda machine.
The town was emptied of its Bohemian residents, which once numbered about 5,000 people. Apartment buildings were turned into dormitories for over 500,000 Jews over the next three years. But this was no ordinary camp. For most, it was a sorting place on the way to the death camps in the East. For a select few of the most elite… artists, composers, writers, doctors, professors – and children – it served a different purpose. While most people suffered and died from malnutrition, disease, cruelty, a select few thousand were chosen to be the faces of Nazi propaganda.
Away from the crematoria, the fierce guard dogs, the machine-gunned sentries, the brick walls and iron bars, was a lovely village. Lush gardens filled with fresh vegetables tended by the Jews in their model village(which actually served the Gestapo…the Jews were forbidden to eat from the plots they tended upon threat of being shot if discovered). There were cafés, theaters, a symphony orchestra, choirs, and happy Jewish families, well-dressed, well-fed, well-cared-for. A large town square provided for ample fresh air, exercise, picnics and outdoor concerts. All a lie. The inmates were only allowed out of doors when visitors came. It was a cruel ruse. A mere facade. An act.
From this part of the town, propaganda films were made. Fake documentaries to hide the truth of atrocities being committed just a few hundred meters away. Films like “The Fuhrer Gives the Jews a City” and”GhettoTheresienstadt. “For three all-too-short years, these chosen few (many were children) had a temporary reprieve as humanitarian agencies were paraded through this “typical” camp.
However, from within the walls of Terezin, something else amazing was happening. The children were organized and taught by artists such as Friedl Dicker-Brandeis. They wrote stories and poems and published their own little weekly newspaper. They created art. With the help of composers Viktor Ullman, Patel Haas and Hans Krasa, they staged magnificent plays. The most famous is an original children’s operetta, Brundibar, about a mean organ grinder(Hitler) persecuting helpless children in a dystopian land. With the help of brave woodland animals, they chase the organ grinder away. It was performed over 50 times for the Nazi officers and their special guests, although no one seemed to catch on to its symbolism. Still, the weekly artistic performances gave the Jews an outlet for their misery and proved a temporary diversion.
After the SS and Gestapo sat to have their portraits drawn by rather famous artists of the day, another type of art was being produced…. and hidden away for posterity. These were the true sights of what life was like within the camp. As under cover of darkness, trains of human cargo would come and go; more people added to the pre-existing crowded conditions; death ruled, and crematoria destroyed the reality of human life snuffed out prematurely, the truth was being painfully recorded.
After the Jewish inhabitants served their purpose, they were sent on to the death camps of Auschwitz, Treblinka and Bergen-Belsen. Thousands crowded into boxcars standing room only, deprived of water, food and bathroom facilities for days at a time. Many of whom died in transit. Soon, World War II would be over, only to be replaced by the Communist regime. Terezin would be reinhabited by local population.
Even though the camp serves as a memorial to the atrocities of man’s inhumanity to man, today there are stark and surreal inconsistencies. Local villagers now inhabit many of the town’s dormitories that once housed The Jewish population. Laced curtained windows look out across the street from old abandoned barracks once crammed with the suffering. Who in their right mind could live here? What could they think? How can you raise a healthy young family with reminders of torture, suffering and death directly across the street?
It’s an indescribable juxtaposition. The most inconceivable absurdity was the antique bazaar, set up in an unused, dilapidated dormitory building. Today it sells old furniture, housewares, vintage clothing – and leftover remnants from the Nazi and Communist regimes. For me, it was just too much to bear.
It was a bone-chilling winter day. Bleak. Strangely silent except for my muffled sobs as we walked the desolate streets haunted by memories of the past. The train ride back home was equally painful, punctuated by the deafening squeals of the metal wheels of the train as it pulled into Prague Station. John and I just needed time to decompress. To find something a bit more uplifting.
We returned to the comfort of our warm hotel room and turned on the television to watch the Winter Olympics from South Korea. We don’t have television in our home in Israel ( by choice), so this was a real treat. Or so we thought.
About fifteen minutes into the pageantry and festivities, the camera turned to a lovely young woman and a bevy of her smiling, clapping, red-outfitted entourage. This was none other than North Korean Kim Jung Un’s sister, second in command and Minister of Propaganda!!! This, a head of an absolutely evil, totalitarian regime, was being hailed by the commentators as a diplomat, an ambassador of peace and goodwill!!! After the day’s outing, we could hardly believe what we were seeing. “How radiant and happy they are! So cute! Look at her smile!” This was the same story being peddled to the ignorant masses around the world. The personification of an Evil Empire bent on the destruction of man disguised as innocence and congeniality. Obviously, the propaganda was having its desired effect. I could only think of the starving millions in North Korea, the defectors, the over 150,000 “political” prisoners – and of Otto Warmbier, the young Jewish student who made a class trip to North Korea. He was imprisoned for taking down a poster as a souvenir of his time there, brutally tortured, then shipped back to the States many months later, comatose. His last few days were spent in a US hospital, never regaining consciousness…. just one example of the cruelty of this regime. Were his parents watching this mockery- and what could they think? As the American reporters fawned over Kim Yo Jung and bashed Vice President Pence as a nefarious sort, we recalled a subtitle from the Terezin documentary:
We are, ironically, about a week away from the Jewish holiday of Purim. A time when we celebrate the bravery of Queen Esther and her heroic saving of the Jewish people from destruction. It was during the captivity of Israel in what is now present day Iraq/Iran. A decree had gone out under the evil Haman, the king’s vizier, for all the Jews to be killed. His plan was thwarted by a fearless and outspoken woman, who drew the king’s attention to the diabolical scheme ( which would mean her ultimate death as well). This was a favorite play of the Terezinstadt Jews, performed numerous times as a source of hope and reminder of eventual justice. We need more people today, willing to call attention to the TRUE injustices of the world – at what reality truly exists. We can no longer gloss over the twisted and evil and downplay the good. Or we will be doomed to replay the same tragedies.
If you have been touched by this article in any way, please share this post. The world needs to see the hidden truths.